Books I read this week: All of March

The beginning of March was slow reading for me, which, looking past over the last couple years, is regular for me. I read three books over the first 3/4ths of the month, then binged on 5 books in the last week. Part of that had to do with getting bogged down in a biography, but we’ll get to that.

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente is lovely. It begins with a brilliant inversion of the beginning of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, where instead of a little human girl getting swept away into Fairyland a little troll boy is swept into the world of humans as a changeling. The sentences and paragraphs are the same but flipped, and it’s a treat to read. The book follows the little boy as he forgets his troll past and struggles as a human boy, and then returns to Fairyland, breaking all the rules in the process. September from The Girl books makes an appearance, and her involvement drives the action to the cliffhanger ending. Valente’s sentences and images are as wonderful as ever, but this book does suffer slightly from being forced to exist in the human world. But even then it’s lovely and insightful.

“There isn’t really a choice, is there?” he whispered. “Adventure cheats. It’s so much shinier and louder than Not Adventure.”

It was Normal to take the nice things your mother knits for you and say, Thank you, they are very nice. Especially if she has made you a sweater with matching mittens and scarves and a long, oversize hat with a long tail and a pom on the end, blue and orange and red and green, with row after row of polar bears and kangaroos knitted into it, which is quite a lot of work. It was Not Normal to stretch the hat out so you could fit inside it up to your neck and fall down the stairs screaming that you are not Thomas, but Horace the Genie of Ten Thousand Burnt Toasts and you are here to take back all your wishes.

A child equals the mass of Fairyland times the speed of luck squared.

Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart by Jean-Claude Baker took sooooo long to read. Two and a half weeks, which is years to me. It might possibly have taken longer than it took me to read the biography of Van Gogh, and that book is almost 1000 pages.  I don’t know why it took so long, it was a good book and Josephine is quite interesting, but I think part of it is that as the author acknowledges at the get go, Josephine was a manipulative person, and I got a little tired of it. Nothing that she did had real consequences, there was always someone to get her out of any trouble that she got herself into.  She brought herself out of poverty and became world renowned, which is compelling, but she also used people and made some really questionable decisions. Over the course of her life she adopted 12 kids from different countries with the goal of proving that there could be a global family that transcends race, but the result was less like Angelina Jolie and more like if Lindsay Lohan did the same thing. Although that comparison isn’t quite fair to Josephine. So much of her time and effort went in to providing for her kids that she was never there to nurture them. But she also made such questionable business decisions and turned to the public’s pity to bail her and her kids out so much that the Lohan comparison isn’t completely inappropriate. Anyway, I’m glad to know more about her, and I was glad to be able to move onto a different book.

To save fifteen monkeys from the place where God had put them, my second mother, filled with goodwill and ignorance,  took them away and killed every one of them.

You loved her, and she hurt you, that was the price you paid for being with Josephine.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is such a good book. Set during WW2, it follows two characters; Werner, a young German boy who has a prodigious skill with radios, and Marie-Laure, a blind girl in France. Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris with what could possibly be a priceless, cursed gem (there have been 3 copies of it made and no one knows who has the real one), and end up in a seaside town where the citizens have decided to resist the German occupation. Werner ends up at a school for Hitler youth where he undergoes indoctrination and trauma and ends up in the battlefield locating the sources of illegal radio transmissions. Since Marie-Laure’s great uncle’s home has a radio transmitter in the attic, it’s only a matter of time until their lives intersect, and it’s very well done. There are some lovely ruminations on the power of music and memory and generosity. I also really appreciate the realistic look at both the German and the French during this time. Werner isn’t evil by any stretch of the imagination, but he goes along with what others are doing because it’s easier than standing against it. In many cases, going along is literally the only way to survive. On the other side, Marie-Laure and her family have to decide whether standing up against the enemy is worth risking their safety.  In both cases, the safest thing would be to just do nothing, but that comes with its own consequences. It’s such a thought provoking, wonderful book. I really really liked it.

“Isn’t doing nothing a kind of troublemaking?” “Doing nothing is doing nothing.” “Doing nothing is as good as collaborating.”

Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended their were no choices, Werner who watched Frederick dump the pail of water at his feet- I will not- Werner who stood by as the consequences came raining down.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is also so so so good. It’s set in an apocalyptic world where the majority of the world has died of a epidemic. The remaining survivors either find places to settle down or travel around as nomads. One such group is the Traveling Symphony who travel between settlements, staging performances of  music and Shakespeare plays. The story bounces through time, following the members of the Symphony in the present and following various characters in the time of the epidemic. The movement back and forth through time works so well, as information is parceled out and you come to realize how various characters are connected.  The descriptions of the epidemic and its aftermath are disturbing in a “wow, this could really happen” kind of way, but not sensationalized at all, which is probably what makes them so disturbing.  I love the idea of the Traveling Symphony and their motto, taken from Star Trek, that survival is insufficient. That’s why they go around performing Shakespeare, and I love that so much. There’s a quote that I can’t find because I read a friend’s copy and therefore couldn’t mark it that says that the troupe tried other plays but everyone kept asking for Shakespeare because they wanted the best of humanity. Yes. Read it, you won’t be disappointed.

Confessions by Kanae Minato is a disturbing little book. It is the story of Yuko Moriguchi, a middle school teacher whose 4 year old daughter dies at the school where Moriguchi teaches. It is deemed an accident, but Moriguchi figures out that her daughter was actually murdered by two kids in her (Moriguchi’s) class. She confronts them in front of the whole class and sets up her revenge on them. The book then switches points of view as the story continues, and we see the action from the point of view of the mother of one of the murderers and then the murderer himself, a friend of the other murderer, and then the other murderer. Each switch reveals a wider picture of what actually happened, and what each person involved thought was going on. It’s an eye opening reminder that we never really know what someone else is thinking unless we talk to them about it. Each one of them has a reason to believe why what they’re doing is right, even if some of those reasons are insane.

Lots of people fritter away their lives complaining that they were never able to find their true calling. But the truth is that most of us probably don’t even have one. So what’s wrong, then, with deciding on the thing that’s right in front of you and doing it wholeheartedly?

But I have to say that I’m less interested in catering to your adolescent whims and more concerned that you grow up someday to be people who are capable of considering the feelings of others.

Clear the Clutter, Find Happiness: One-Minute Tips for Decluttering and Refreshing Your Home and Your Life by Donna Smallin is a collection of short little tips for organizing your house. There’s not really anything new in it, but I read it in less than an hour and it cost me 99 cents so I won’t complain.

Clutter is what you end up with when you have more stuff than you need.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is so good and so sad. It begins on the morning that sixteen year old Lydia Lee’s family realizes that she’s missing, and follows the aftermath of her discovery in the neighborhood lake. As the book goes on, we learn the history and inner thoughts of each family member, and much like Confessions, realize that we can’t know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. Lydia’s father is Chinese, her mother is white, and as the book is set in 1976, their relationship and history is fraught. They bring those concerns into the lives of their children without realizing it. They consider Lydia the perfect child and lavish all of their attention on her, to the detriment of her older brother and younger sister. Everyone thinks that they understand where everyone else is coming from, but in their grief everything unravels and everything that everyone is holding back comes out. Their secrets aren’t even secrets; they don’t necessarily realize that they’re keeping anything from anyone, they just see the world the way they see it and assume that everyone else does the same. It’s a heartbreaking, eye opening story, as you recognize the damage that families can do to each other without even realizing it. It reminded me a couple times of  The Hours by Michael Cunningham, especially Laura’s story where she struggles with the weight of her responsibility to her son. “He will watch her forever. He will always know when something is wrong. He will always know precisely when and how much she has failed.” That line from Laura’s mind could sum up all of Everything I Never Told You.

It’s gorgeously written and painful to read, and so incredibly good.

But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn’t care and went on anyway.

The minister reads the Twenty-third psalm, but in the revised text: I have everything I need instead of I shall not want; Even if I walk through a very dark valley instead of Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. It feels disrespectful, a corner cut. Like burying his daughter in a plywood box.

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